The Tamil Experience of being Alienated at Home

| by Charles Sarvan

( July 24, 2014, Berliner, Sri Lanka Guardian) What follows is consequent of a remark made by (Sinhalese) Mr Bradman Weerakoon on 20 June 2014 in the course of a eulogy on his close friend of many years, (Tamil) Mr Duleepkumar.

It was, I felt, both eulogy and elegy: “His last years were painful, mentally more than physically, as he took on himself the sad plight of what was happening to his people […] in the North and East.” As Literature teaches us, collective misfortune is finally experienced by individual, sentient, human beings; in turn, an individual life can give us insight into a wider, and therefore impersonal, anonymous, tragedy: as it has been noted, the noun ‘Literature’ can also be seen as a verb.

In an email communication to me Mr Weerakoon added: “He cut himself from his former friends because he could not understand their indifference to what was happening to fellow citizens.” The last phrase, “fellow citizens” is significant. Writing on Adrian Wijemanne, I observed that if the Sinhalese had been oppressed, Adrian Wijemanne would have fought as courageously, clearly and eloquently as he had fought for the Tamils. Fundamentally, the struggle is not on behalf of a group but for fellow citizens; going further, for the human-rights of all, irrespective of skin-colour, religion, language, class or sex. Words from Keats’ ‘Fall of Hyperion’ come to mind: “those to whom the miseries of the world / Are misery, and will not let them rest”. (For “rest” one could substitute words such as be “indifferent”, “uncaring” or “inactive”.)

A friend now settled in Perth, Australia, observed that injustice, when it is prolonged, comes to be seen and accepted as normal. Time transforms the abnormal into what comes to be seen as normal: for example, the Chinese occupation of Tibet. New roads and buildings; social and cultural activities camouflage fundamental injustice and present the appearance of normality, indeed of progress. Mr Duleepkumar declined to be deceived.

My friend, like Mr Duleepkumar, lamented the large number of “Sinhalese friends from our past who so enriched our lives but, when it came to the crunch, disappointed us”. The disappointment was because (1) they had succumbed to prevailing hegemonic ideas, abandoning earlier principles and ideals. They had become ‘racists’, though still claiming to be of the Left: a socialist does not countenance hierarchy (be it of class, ‘race’, sex, or religion), oppression and exploitation. (2) Or they were indifferent. (3) Or, if they were concerned, they were silent and inactive. With reference to the last, Martin Luther King sadly said that the silence of friends causes more pain than the words of enemies.

Prior to the Holocaust, the Jews formed a very small percentage of the German and Austrian population. Most of them were integrated and made a contribution to the intellectual and cultural, the economic and political, life of these countries. Freud who was forced to flee, had been awarded the Goethe Prize for his contribution to German literary culture. Going back further in time, Jewish Walter Rathenau was Foreign Minister. The list of those Jews who made a contribution to Germany and Austria in all the different fields of human endeavour is very long indeed, and most impressive. Many volunteered, fought for Germany during World War 1, and paid the ultimate price. Most of Germany’s Jews were fully integrated. Integration means identification with: they were Germans who happened to be Jewish. (As I have written elsewhere, as a schoolboy and at university, all my friends were Sinhalese: they were not Sinhalese friends but friends who, apart from far more important characteristics, happened to be Sinhalese. The last had as much significance then as the fact that some are left-handed; and some like football more than cricket.) Integration is a frame that includes and incorporates while preserving difference, for example, as under a federal constitution: see, for example, Australia, Canada, Germany, India, Switzerland, the USA etc.

Integration can be contrasted with assimilation. The latter, unless carried out over many years, and obliterating every sign of an earlier group affiliation, does not buy acceptance and protection. In this connection, I cite from Page 19 of my Public Writings on Sri Lanka, Volume 2:

Professor Yasmine Gooneratne (born Bandaranayake; a niece of S W R D Bandaranayake) suggests in her Relative Merits: A Personal Memoir of the Bandaranaike Family of Sri Lanka that the family name may have come from a Tamil officer, Neela Perumal, made high priest of the Temple of the god Saman, and in 1454 ordered to take the name of Nayaka Pandaram, that is, Chief Record Keeper. With time, the name changed to Pandara Nayaka, and thence to the present Bandaranayake. Similarly, there is evidence that the Salagama, Durava and Karava castes were originally Tamil, from South India, and that “Hettiarachige” derives from “chief of the Chettis”. (The chettis are described as “a Tamil trading caste”.) Again, one wonders, “So what? Is it important?” Yes, it is important because we make it important. It is not the fact, but the value we attach to it, since we are the source of significance.

In 1492, Queen Isabella of Spain, under The Alhambra Decree, expelled all Jews from Spain, including those who, either by conviction, calculation or force had become Christian: the term of insult for Jewish converts was marronos, meaning pig. (By coincidence, 1492 also marks another calamity, far greater in scope and permanent in effect, namely, the discovery of America by Columbus, and the subsequent plunder, dispossession and death of the native populations.)

“Denial” in ordinary usage means asserting that a statement or allegation is not factual but in psychology, as traced by Sigmund Freud, it is a mechanism in which a person faced with an uncomfortable or unpleasant fact, either rejects it completely or minimises, denying the degree of seriousness. Having lived in Germany for centuries, being integrated and having made a positive contribution, many Jews simply did not see the grave and horrible threat of Nazism, that is, until it was all too late. Leading a peaceful life, with friends in the wider community, many were unable to accept reality and flee the land of their birth. Altering words from The Bible (St Mark 4:12), seeing, they did not perceive; hearing, they were unable to understand. (When I visited my father in Colombo in 1981, he spoke with great concern about the growing hostility against the Tamils, but some of my relations made light of it. Father died in 1982 and, unlike mother, was spared the horror of Black July ’83.) It’s a tragic irony that the drive for “purity” can lead to appallingly cruel acts of “impurity”.

Similar to the Jews, the Tamils were integrated, and saw themselves as “Ceylonese”. I again quote from Public Writings, Volume 2:

“It must be borne in mind that it did not always appear to be a situation of enmity and conflict. There was a time when most, if not all in the Island, irrespective of language and religion, equally took a measure of pride and encouragement from ancient achievement, temple and lake; an equal measure of happiness in being “Ceylonese”; a time when Tamils described themselves as Ceylonese and not (as some Tamils tend to do now) as “Sri Lankan Tamil”. When in 1915, D. S. Senanayake (later the first Prime Minister of independent Ceylon) and his brother, F. R. Senanayake were jailed by the British authorities, Tamil Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan went to England to plead their case. On his successful return, jubilant crowds placed him in a carriage, detached the horses, and dragged the carriage themselves. He was not seen as a Tamil who had helped free a Sinhalese, but as a Ceylonese helping a fellow Ceylonese. “In 1925-6, when Bandaranayake, as leader of the Progressive National Party, set out the case for a federal political structure for Sri Lanka and made this the main plank of the political platform of his party, he received no support for it from the Tamils”: K M De Silva, p. 513. In the 1930s, the Jaffna Youth Congress rejected federalism. (They looked not look to Tamil Nadu but to Gandhi and Nehru.) They persuaded almost all the leading schools in Jaffna to teach Sinhala as a compulsory subject. As A E Jayasuriya observed, “At a time when the Sinhalese were prepared to do without Sinhala, the battle for Sinhala and Tamil was fought by Tamil leaders”: see, D Nesiah, Tamil Nationalism, p. 12. I recall that when C. Suntheralingam of Vavuniya argued for a separate (Tamil) state in the early 1950s, he was indulgently laughed at by most Tamils who saw it as the eccentricity of a brilliant mind. In 1952, the Kankesuntharai parliamentary seat was contested by Chelvanayagam, as a member of the Federal Party. He was comfortably defeated by a U.N.P. candidate.”

H. A. J. Hulugalle, (1899 – 1981) records that Ponnambalam Ramanathan, a Tamil, fought untiringly for the Sinhalese Buddhists leaders victimised by British imperialism: they had “no more sincere and eloquent pleader of their cause” (Selected Journalism, 2010, p. 151). Hulugalle describes another Tamil, Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam, as the father of the Ceylon nationalist movement (page 149). Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam, in the course of a Prize-Day speech delivered on July 30th 1914 at Mahinda College, spoke up for the Sinhalese, and for Buddhism. The latter, he lamented, had been “at a very low ebb”:

“It had been abandoned by men of light and leading, especially among the English-educated classes. Those who remained Buddhists were too often ashamed to acknowledge it.

In the Courts I was sometimes saddened to see in the witness box Buddhists pretending to be Christians, and taking their oaths on the Bible. I am not a Buddhist or a Theosophist; but I was much pleased to give Madame Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott such help as I could in their mission to restore the influence and prestige of Buddhism in the Island. Great as the obligation of Ceylon is to them, we must not forget the debt due to the masses of the Sinhalese people who clung to the national religion, however little they understood its beauty and greatness, or were able to justify their faith - clung to it through generations in spite of the disabilities and, in former times, even persecution…

It is a strange anomaly that the Buddhists though they constitute about two-thirds of the island’s populations and are not lacking in men of ability and culture, have for years past been without a single representative in the Legislative Council.”

Another Tamil who championed Buddhism and Sinhalese culture was the internationally renowned Ananda Coomaraswamy. I cite from the Sunday Island of Colombo, 22 January 2012 on the re-naming of Ananda Coomaraswamy Mawatha as Nelum Pokuna Mawatha:

“Christmas Humphreys (British Q.C. and later Judge) well known to Sri Lankan Buddhists as the author of the Penguin paperback titled "Buddhism" (published in 1951 which sold over a million copies) has rated Coomaraswamy’s work ‘Buddha and the gospel of Buddhism’(1916) as "the finest single volume on Buddhism yet published". Having purchased a copy when he was 17, Humphreys has cited this work as the reason which led him to embrace Buddhism […] Although three-fourths of Sri Lankans follow the teachings of Buddha who has preached ‘puja cha pujaniyaanan (honour those worthy of honour ) it is a pity if the name of Ananda Coomaraswamy – the first Sri Lankan to bring international fame to our country is to be forgotten thus from national recognition.”

Tamils were forced to see themselves not as Sri Lankans who by accident of birth were Tamil but as second-class aliens. What mattered was not character and contribution but a Sinhalese identity. Mr. Duleepkumar was one of those who had fondly (“fondly” also in the Shakespearean sense of “foolishly”) believed in a Sri Lanka of inclusion, decency and justice. Mr Bradman Weerakoon in an email message to me wrote: “Duleep was a ' pluralist' to the core. As a small boy himself learning Sinhala with us, he would memorize "Guttila Kavya" practicing the way the pundits said 'Guttn sila' with a sibilant thrown in for greater effect. I still remember it with admiration.”

Duleepkumar felt betrayed; was disillusioned, and deeply, deeply, hurt. The exile is one who, voluntarily or enforced, leaves home to live a stranger among strangers but Duleepkumar felt that the home he had known, loved and worked for, had been taken away from him. He, like those Jews, was made to feel an alien in what once had been home. Jonathan Swift (1667 – 1745) wrote his own epitaph, and I use words from it as an epitaph for Mr Duleepkumar: Deep indignation [at injustice] can now no longer “lacerate” his heart.

(Professor Sarvan is located in Germany and takes a keen interest in Sri Lankan Affairs)